Arguably, Five’s biggest risk was when it made Channel 4′s 34-year-old science editor, Dan Chambers, its director of programs in 2001. In turn, one of Chambers’ initial high-profile gambles was the expensive entertainment flop Back to Reality.
That decision aside, Chambers has since done an admirable job – sustaining Five’s 6.6% audience share in a market where free-to-air networks are under attack from the growing cabsat market. Beyond Back to Reality, Chambers’ big risk and most notable achievement has been to drive Five towards the high ground. By backing arts, history, wildlife and science, this former philosophy student has moved the network away from the infamous ‘film, football and fucking’ tag it was given by a previous director of programming, Dawn Airey. Chambers’ key insight was that a majority of Brits had started to define their preferred viewing habits as ‘anything but Five.’
Some shock factor is still required to keep Five in the public eye. For example, the science strand ‘Extraordinary People’ (from Justine Kershaw’s department) is one of the current raft of populist shows that looks at people with rare conditions (The Real Rain Man, The Woman Who Lost 30 Stone, etc). And the highlight of this autumn’s factual slate is Crucify Me, which follows a journalist’s quest to rediscover his faith. Taking part in a crucifixion ritual in the Philippines, he has to decide whether to be nailed to the cross or turn his back on Christianity for good. But the real successes under Chambers are strands like ‘Revealed’ – a series of RTS Award-winning docs that comes out of Alex Sutherland’s history department. There has also been shrewd counter-scheduling of wildlife (a genre handled by Bethan Corney) and a genuine commitment to art, poetry and philosophy. ‘Undercover’ films from Chris Shaw’s news and current affairs department have also made their mark.